With several hundred others, I attended the funeral on Sunday of a man who can without qualification be described as a giant. Jack Wigen was a dynamic force in every aspect of his life, and there were many, many aspects, or facets, as speaker Dan Miller so aptly put it.
The crowded Creston Room, with at least a hundred folks forced to stand for want of seating, heard of a man who was hugely successful in his business and investment endeavours, but was also an athlete, a musician, a poet and a tireless promoter of the Creston Valley, and especially his hometown of Wynndel.
It was hardly necessary to point out that he was also a brilliant man, with a prodigious memory, to boot. I make it a habit, as a journalist, to survey rooms to see who might be forces to be reckoned with. When Jack was among us, there was little doubt that, unless Stephen Hawking had somehow been spirited in when no one was looking, he would be the brightest. I don’t think there was anything he couldn’t speak knowledgeably and articulately about and there was precious little upside to getting into an argument with him. Better just to sit back and listen, I learned a long time ago. There was always something to be learned.
My first memory of Jack Wigen dates back to 1980. I was a newcomer to Creston, newly out of journalism school and embarking on a new career. I undertook to write a series of stories about the forest industry and had the opportunity to witness horse-logging and high-lead logging and to get an up-close look at the inner workings of sawmills. I even flew over the Arrow Creek watershed, courtesy of Michael Wigen. One day, out of the blue, I received an invitation to lunch with Jack and his brother, Bob. I was puzzled as to its purpose, and not a little intimidated to be in their company.
We spoke of many things over that lunch and I still remember an unexpected offer from Jack that took me years to come to terms with. He told me that if I ever wanted a career change he would put me through a log-scaling course and hire me. At first I thought there was some sort of subtle intimidation involved, but that didn’t make sense because my stories gave no indication that I was a threat to Wynndel Box and Lumber, or any other company, for that matter. Eventually, I came to believe that he knew I was a young married man who wanted to raise a family here, and it wouldn’t have taken a person of his intelligence to understand that newspaper employees aren’t likely to become wealthy.
Over the years, we have had a friendly, though not particularly close relationship. Several years back, not long after Parkinson’s disease made him quite shaky, we were at a wedding reception with a no-host bar. We chatted for a while and he asked if he could buy my wife and I a glass of wine. Too shaky to carry the glasses to us, he asked a young woman who was clearing tables to do him a favour. The wine was delivered and I silently toasted the thoughtfulness that he always displayed. Last summer, we chatted as we stood in a grocery checkout line. He paid for his purchases, then turned back and asked if I would like a couple of the cobs of corn he had purchased — he had more than he really wanted, he said. I accepted the offer, not because I needed the corn, but because it would have been rude to refuse that little act of kindness.
In the course of my work I hear many stories that aren’t meant for publication. Many of them have involved generous acts of kindness toward others that Jack became so well known for. Not one single time was I ever asked to take a photo of him making a presentation of one of those gifts. He preferred to act quietly and without fanfare. Occasionally, he would call me at my office to give me a bit of information, perhaps about a business person who was having a tough time or just because there was something he thought I should know. As often as not, what he had to tell me wasn’t for publication, but just because he knew he had my ear, and I felt privileged to know he felt that way about me.
It took me a long time to appreciate that Jack’s early offer to help me change careers was in fact the gift of a lifeline, even though it happened long before Who Wants to be a Millionaire made the term popular. Somehow, in the back of my mind, I’ve long known that if I was ever in need, he had issued a very subtle, and very sincere, offer of help. Just ask, he was saying, as he did to so many others, and I’ll be there for you.
It can’t be easy to live an entire life in a small community, knowing that some are looking on with envy and jealousy. But, for all his success, Jack Wigen really wanted not much more than to be part of a community he loved, and to help others in his own quiet ways. We are the better for having shared this Creston Valley with him. May he rest in peace.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.